Tony Blair has dismissed opposition to his Iraq policy as the province of “urban intellectuals”. A strange comment from the Prime Minister of one of the most urbanised societies on earth. But then he also managed to ignore the latest opinion poll showing that 57% of his electorate want to see British troops out of Iraq.
Back in 1970, Spiro Agnew, then vice-president of the United States, disparaged anti-Vietnam War activists as “effete intellectuals”. Within three years of that jibe a bribery scandal forced Agnew to resign in disgrace. His master, Richard Nixon, followed soon after, covered in Watergate sludge.
Nixon and Agnew were leftists compared to the current occupants of the White House, so from a historical perspective it’s extraordinary that Bush’s staunchest global ally should be a Labour prime minister. As the US satirist Michael Moore put it to British audiences, “We’re dumb. What’s your excuse?”
There’s undoubtedly a personal element in Downing Street’s warmth for Washington. Blair’s unblushing reversals and evasions are underpinned not only by opportunism and a Nixon-like contempt for truth-telling, but also by conservative convictions and what appears to be a deep rooted reverence for the rich. There’s also an evident incapacity to grasp the consequences of his decisions for others. A recently published memoir by a former employee depicts his childish excitement when he first ordered UK troops into combat in 1998, when in league with Bill Clinton he waged a brief but lethal aerial war against Iraq.
But it would be wrong to think that Blair is alone. He has been served ardently by his cabinet, only one member of which, the late Robin Cook, resigned over Iraq. Given the scale of popular opposition to the invasion, not to mention the starkness of the moral and political choice, Cook’s isolation was remarkable certainly without precedent in the history of Labour governments. But then the vast majority of Labour MPs have put aside their initial disquiet over the invasion and now share Blair’s eagerness to see the political agenda “move on”. Disgust with the Iraq war is widespread among the diminishing ranks of Labour party members (200,000 50% – lost since 1997), but the cumulative effect of the changes imposed on the party since the defeat of the miners’ strike of 1984-85 has been to sever the organisation from its social roots and seal off access to elite decision-making.
Although he claims otherwise, Blair has also been well served by the BBC and much of the mainstream media. Lord Hutton’s inquiry into the circumstances of the suicide of Dr David Kelly, released in early 2004, exonerated Blair’s coterie while heavily criticising the BBC. The upshot was that the BBC was punished for reporting, accurately, that Blair’s office had exaggerated the evidence on Saddam Hussein’s WMD in order to secure parliamentary and public support for war. Though the Hutton report was widely derided as a whitewash, it succeeded in intimidating the BBC, whose coverage of Iraq since then has been lamentable. Civilian casualties of US-British military actions are rarely noted although they account for five times the number of deaths as car bombs and other Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. Last year’s bombardment and siege of Fallujah, in which thousands may have died, was reported exclusively from outside the city limits, by journalists embedded with US forces. The recent air and ground assault on Tal Afur, in which hundreds are reported to have died, was ignored.
Preoccupied with suicide bombers and the Sunni-Shia divide, the BBC rarely refers to Shia opposition to the occupation, or indeed to civil and political opposition in general. Anyone restricted to BBC coverage will be unaware that more than one third of the members of the Iraqi assembly elected in January have called for prompt withdrawal of foreign forces. Voices arguing for an end to the occupation, Iraqi or British, are largely excluded, though tests of opinion indicate that this is a majority view in both countries.
Again, it’s not just the BBC. In its coverage of recent events in Basra, The Observer, a venerable liberal weekly, referred to “the kidnapping of two British SAS troopers”. Surely that should read “the arrest by Iraqi police of two British troopers disguised as Arabs and in possession of an arsenal of high powered weapons and sophisticated surveillance equipment”. The British army’s response to the detention of these two men whose mission remains, at the moment, unexplained was to attack and destroy an Iraqi police compound with tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters. Civilians then surrounded the British and hurled petrol bombs at them. The British replied with fire killing an unknown number of “rioters”.
Many in Britain have comforted themselves with the thought that at least we’re not as bad as the Americans. It’s been assumed that in southern Iraq the sophisticated British had cleverly avoided the kind of hostility that confronts the cowboy Americans elsewhere in the country. Again, on-the-ground reportage from the British zone of occupation has been scanty in the extreme. So the recent Basra events have come as a shock. But the myth of British restraint is not the only one to have been exploded by these events. The bigger casualty is the myth of Iraqi sovereignty.
Here the British public has to grapple with the core injustice of US-UK policy the military occupation of a foreign country, against the will of its people, and in pursuit of a thinly veiled colonial project. The London-Washington axis is a function of much more than the Blair-Bush romance. The linkage between the two governments and their corporate sectors class has been comprehensive since World War II, at the end of which the US inherited the UK’s empire, most crucially its oil-rich west Asian branch.
Sneering at intellectuals’ is a tried and tested piece of political vaudeville, entirely in keeping with Blair’s philistine elitism. Ironically, a substantial proportion of the British intelligentsia support him, if not on the wisdom of the invasion certainly on the commitment to keeping British troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Increasing numbers of “non-intellectuals” here and in the USA disagree. Blair’s problem, then, isn’t “urban intellectuals”, it’s the reality of the war in Iraq.
This column originally ran in The Hindu.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH
We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).
Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.
As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.
We are pleased to clarify the position.
August 17, 2005